Heroes have a pretty specific image attached to them. Policemen, firefighters, soldiers—people who put their lives on the line for a living get the most accolades because of their sense of duty. And they should.
But heroes can come from anywhere, not just those who protect and serve every day. Sometimes, extraordinary circumstances bring out the best in ordinary people. Here are some men and women you should also keep in mind.
1. Jabbar Gibson
How does one escape a city ravaged by a hurricane? That’s a question Jabbar Gibson had to ask himself when he and his friends were trapped in New Orleans back in 2005. Aid from the government and Red Cross was slow and unreliable, and waiting would leave him and those around him dead. So Gibson took matters into his own hands. He broke into a school bus, rounded up as many friends and family members as he could, and drove to the nearest sanctuary they could find. How did Gibson know how to drive a bus? Simple: He didn’t. Gibson was a small-time drug dealer and thief, used to hot-wiring cars and breaking in and out of places he ought not to be. He managed to figure out the controls quickly once they were inside and rescued over 60 people. Wherever your stance on stealing lands, Gibson’s criminal expertise ended up saving a lot of innocent lives, and we’re grateful for his service to his community.
2. Art Hayashi
The Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s remain a particularly gruesome stain on our nation’s checkered history. The places were miserable, literal representations of the extreme xenophobia the U.S. was experiencing, and very little could be done to remedy the situation. Art Hayashi, however, begged to differ. While better conditions and freedom were out of the question, Hayashi managed to stave off going crazy by forming a swing band within the walls of his camp. Hayashi, who was classically trained and used to playing big-band music, rounded up a group of other musicians and formed the Harmonaires. The Chicago native said how important the experience was to those trapped behind the fences: “And because we were so concerned about the music, it took our minds off of the bad things.”
3. Walter Huchthausen
A common criticism of art is that it doesn’t have an objective value. Who could possibly put a price on art, which is essentially—and necessarily—subjective? Well in 1945, Walter Huchthausen put a definitive price on several artifacts in German possession by paying the ultimate price. Huchthausen was a member of a team dubbed the Monuments Men, a group of multinational art historians, architects and archivists whose job was to find and protect art found in occupied Axis territories at all costs. The mission was especially dire because the Nazis had a habit of destroying their stores of art and those of the nations they rampaged through. On April 2nd, 1945, Huchthausen and members of his team drove past enemy lines to recover artifacts. Huchthausen was shot and killed instantly, but his heroism and sacrifice made recovery missions thereafter much easier, as his maps and information led soldiers to crates of Dutch paintings and an original manuscript of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.
4. Frank J. Wilson
Everyone knows the that Al Capone was finally caught because of tax evasion. It’s a perfect parable of hubris being struck down by the most minor overlooked details. But has anyone stopped to wonder who was actually responsible for making that story happen? Frank J. Wilson, an IRS agent, studied Capone’s financial records for years until he was positive he could indict him. Wilson was careful, meticulous and diligent in his pursuit of unravelling Capone’s criminal empire. On top of that, Wilson was also head of the Secret Service and resisted an FBI takeover by J. Edgar Hoover. Unfortunately, Frank Wilson’s low-key reputation was a part of his job: prosecuting kingpins and leading the Secret Service involves, well, secrecy. Not even his wife knew about the Capone investigation until it went public. Hopefully people now appreciate the hard work he put forth and remember his name.
5. Clara Barton
It’s possible you know Clara Barton for her greatest accomplishment: founding the American Red Cross. That in itself is a colossal achievement for just about anyone—but Clara Barton wasn’t just anyone. For her, founding the American Red Cross was only one accomplishment in a long life dedicated to public service. She also founded the first public school in New Jersey, became the first female government employee by working as a patent clerk, served as an Army nurse and ran the Office of Missing Soldiers (an organization dedicated to finding lost soldiers during the Civil War). She paved the way for feminism, as well, demanding equal pay to her male peers during her career as an educator. Barton’s legacy is too great to be considered in only one facet, much less totally ignored.
Photo: Getty Images/Bettmann